Ancient and early modern antecedents notwithstanding, the idea of universal human rights is quite new. It was codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Even newer is the idea of studying Human Rights as an academic discipline. Human rights as such entered academia formally only after 1975, when the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and most European states signed the Helsinki Accords, a treaty that would become greatly important to the Cold War, as it settled the post–WWII borders of Europe while calling for Human Rights to be respected within them.
In 2000, 25 years after Helsinki and 52 years after the Declaration of Human Rights, Columbia College and Barnard College established the U.S.’s first undergraduate programs for the study of Human Rights. In their eight years of operation, both programs have inspired healthy criticism and approbation from students and faculty alike. The programs have consistently drawn a small group of committed students, and they have recruited a host of faculty from various departments to teach classes.i, ii
Human Rights Studies originated at Columbia in 1977, when faculty ambassadors to the Carter Administration decided to inaugurate a hub for the academic study of this novel feature of international politics. That year, professor J. Paul Martin (the Director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights [CSHR] from 1986–2007 and the current Director of the Human Rights Studies Program at Barnard College) and renowned international lawyer and law professor Louis Henkin (now University Professor Emeritus) created the Center for the Study of Human Rights. The Center, whose mission is “[t]o integrate Human Rights into the intellectual and programmatic life of the University,” began offering extensive educational programming for young scholars and activists on Human Rights and International Security in the 1980’s. From 1988–1989, the Center held a conference with the African National Congress and Afrikaners on the development of a post–Apartheid South African Constitution. Likewise, in 1989, it began the Human Rights Advocates Program, through which it continues to offer advanced training to Human Rights advocates. Around the same time, the Center initiated an official Concentration at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.
In keeping with its aim of integrating Human Rights into all realms of the University, the Center joined with the faculty of Barnard and Columbia to launch the Undergraduate Programs in 2000. Julie Peters, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, is credited with initiating Columbia’s Program; Irene Bloom, Barnard’s Anne Whitney Olin Professor Emerita of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, and Peter Juviler, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Special Lecturer Chair, are credited with beginning Barnard’s program. From the outset, the Programs were established to complement programs of study in recognized departments. Neither Program began with departmental status, and neither has sought such recognition since.
The leadership of Barnard’s department has changed hands frequently since its inception. The program’s directorship has been occupied, chronologically, by Irene Bloom, Peter Juviler, Jack Hawley (Professor of Religion), and Rachel McDermott (Associate Professor and Department Chair Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures). In the fall of 2007, Martin assumed his current role as Director. Columbia’s program has enjoyed somewhat greater stability. The position has switched hands between History professors Michael Stanislawski, who served as its first head, and Samuel Moyn, who took over in spring 2006 but will relinquish the post to Stanislawski in the coming academic year. Despite this lack of consistency in leadership, the Programs have maintained a close relationship. Faculty associated with the Programs communicate and coordinate often, and students earn credit for courses taken in either school’s Program.
As a product of their close relationship, the Programs are nearly identical in structure and requirements. Both Programs may only be taken in conjunction with a Major in a recognized department (e.g. Political Science). Both require that students take a course entitled Introduction to Human Rights, which surveys the dominant historical and contemporary issues in Human Rights: from theoretical and conceptual underpinnings—e.g. conceptions of natural rights, conceptions of civil and political rights that critique natural rights theories, the relation of rights to international relations theories such as realism and liberalism, and ideas about ethical behavior drawn from moral philosophy—to post–conflict justice and the relevance of international Human Rights law to the War on Terror. Likewise, both require that students complete their studies with a capstone of sorts: students of the Columbia Program must take a Human Rights Senior Seminar, while students of the Barnard Program are required to incorporate Human Rights Studies into their senior theses in their respective Majors. In between these book ends, so to speak, students are required to take five courses drawn from a list that pertain either explicitly (Human Rights in World Politics) or more implicitly (Social Movements) to Human Rights.
Students of the Programs have considerable freedom to structure their studies. Given the interdisciplinary nature of Human Rights studies and the varied academic and professional interests of those who embark on the concentration, a certain degree of flexibility is a positive and important feature.
Prior to this academic year, however, this freedom was undoubtedly too great, as students could take courses that only loosely connected to Human Rights. For instance, Pablo Piccato’s Mexico from Revolution to Democracy formerly counted automatically towards Columbia’s Human Rights concentration, even though its discussions of the Mexican Revolution and the Student Movements of 1968 rarely broached the topic of Human Rights. Piccato’s class was one among many with questionable relevance to the Programs. Consequently, students could finish the Human Rights Concentration with little real knowledge of contemporary institutions (like the UN and the International Criminal Court) so essential to understanding the role of Human Rights in a globalized, post–9/11 world—and in an improved future.
Professors Martin and Moyn foresaw this problem, and narrowed the broad and nebulous list of courses that count for the Concentration at Columbia to a set that pertains more directly to Human Rights. Additionally, Moyn and Martin have created “Track” options for students of the programs, including “Human Rights/Civil Rights in the U.S.” and various regional tracks to help students better focus their studies vis–à–vis their interests while still covering necessary aspects of human rights.
Moyn agrees that that taking a set of courses that address grave human problems without some discussion of their relation to human rights cannot be read as Human Rights Studies proper, noting that “just because you take five courses about suffering doesn’t necessarily mean you should be entitled to a credential in human rights.” He suggests that there are certain things that students must know—about human rights in principle and in practice—in order to engage in the study of human rights genuinely and effectively.
These particular issues point to more general questions about the purposes and aims of Human Rights Studies and how academic programs ought to be conceived to achieve these ends. For Martin and Thania Sanchez, Columbia’s Undergraduate Program Coordinator, the object of Human Rights studies is to enable individuals to deduce mutual duties and obligations—general rules of treatment and behavior for us as individuals in communities, as citizens of states, and, quite importantly, as citizens of the world. Sanchez further maintains that human rights are deeply related to some of today’s most pressing questions and issues, including, but not limited to, tensions between the protection of rights and consolidation of security in the context of the War on Terror, protection of civilians and prevention of mass displacement in armed conflict, growing inequalities in wealth and standard of living associated with economic globalization, ethnic violence and genocide, and the debate over whether peace must precede justice or vice versa in resolving long–standing civil conflict in places like Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As such, Human Rights studies, properly conceived, gives students the tools to analyze these situations from various perspectives and encourages them to address these and similar issues by seeking to minimize human suffering and maximize human security. Most importantly, Moyn, Martin, and Sanchez conceive of Human Rights studies, especially in the Liberal Arts context, as an analytical pursuit geared towards helping students understand the controversies surrounding human rights and the complexity of historical, contemporary, and future problems at local, national, and international levels.
But does Human Rights education fit neatly within a Liberal Arts context? To what extent is it an academic pursuit, and to what extent is it about pre–professional training? Though in the Columbia and Barnard Undergraduate contexts it remains a largely analytical pursuit, Human Rights studies doubles as a springboard for activism and advocacy. It attracts students who often involve themselves in practical pursuits such as internships and advocacy campaigns alongside their studies. Likewise, many students of the Programs plan to pursue advocacy in their careers. How should all this affect the university’s Human Rights Programs?
A general survey of students in this year’s Senior Seminar revealed that all but three of them wished that they had had more opportunities to take such practical classes. They also expressed frustration with the emphasis on theory in the Programs. This tension is understandable. At a minimum, it reflects the many career opportunities in Human Rights: from academia to more professional settings in government, in nongovernmental organizations in inter–governmental organizations, and in grassroots organizing. Perhaps it also demonstrates the desire of individuals who have studied and who care immensely about human rights to acquire the tools necessary to put their studies to practice as advocates and global citizens.
But significant experience with Human Rights as a scholarly pursuit is a necessary precondition for acting as an effective and wise human rights advocate. And since the Programs, in their current states, hardly provide adequate opportunities for the pursuit of Human Rights as an analytical project, it seems that a focus on bolstering the Programs in this respect should take precedence over integrating more practical course options into the curriculum.
Analyzing these tensions in Human Rights Studies and adapting the Programs at Barnard and Columbia to student needs and demands are clearly essential for improving the state of undergraduate Human Rights Studies at Barnard and Columbia. However, before considering these questions, Columbia and Barnard must first resolve their administrative difficulties, which prevent the Programs from maximizing their potential and limit discussion on the nature of course offerings.
In addition to refining the curriculum, Moyn and Martin have spent significant effort and time addressing administrative difficulties by tightening bureaucracy and soliciting greater financial support for the Programs. Although working only part–time at Barnard, Martin has secured significant donations, is currently teaching the Human Rights Senior Seminar, has overseen the creation of an informative website for the Program, and functions effectively as an experienced and knowledgeable advisor of a Program that formerly lacked any semblance of management. In his tenure, Moyn has also helped to create a functional and informative website for Columbia students, has helped to develop informative and interesting programming, has secured funding to hire two professors annually to teach courses as adjuncts, and has consistently taught Historical Origins of Human Rights. Moyn accomplished all of this while acting as director voluntarily and without receiving any course relief (the course load he is required to teach annually remains the same).
Despite their best efforts, Moyn and Martin are restricted in their efforts by several factors, including a lack of consistency and diversity in course offerings, a lack of adequate administrative assistance, and a lack of committed faculty. Additionally, the Programs lack the space allotted to other departments. There is no building, office, or floor at Columbia where all of those affiliated with its Human Rights program are housed, and Barnard’s Program is housed entirely in Martin’s small office in the Slavic Department. As students like Barnard senior Samantha Stern note, the absence of both a distinct and prominent location and plentiful resources for advising dampens student commitment to the Program and reduces possibilities for community–building among students. Moreover, the Program Directors—excluding Martin—have received no compensation for their efforts. While it is clear that the Programs face a litany of troubles, one problem clearly underlies them all: a significant funding deficit.
The first article of the 'United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The Columbia Program receives a meager budget of $6000 per year. Roughly $1000 of each year’s budget goes to the Center for the Study of Human Rights for their assistance in handling some of the administrative aspects of the Program; the remaining funds are devoted to programming, including the Human Rights Film Series and lectures (including Harvard professor, A Problem from Hell author, and former Barack Obama adviser Samantha Power’s recent appearance). Strikingly, this sum is smaller than the Political Science Graduate Students Association’s budget, which, according to Sanchez, is used almost exclusively to fund casual events. In addition to these funds, the Program receives only enough funding to hire two adjuncts to teach two classes each year. Worse yet, Moyn notes, the Columbia Program has “no control over hiring.”
Prior to this year, the Barnard Program, according to Martin, received no funding whatsoever. Since he has become Director, however, the Program has begun to receive some funding from Barnard and from a fund created by Irene Bloom. Like Moyn, Martin has control over hiring one or two adjuncts each year. However, as Martin explains, the funding the Human Rights Program at Barnard receives is “minimal compared to others.”
Scant funding underlies many of the problems associated with the Program. Students like Columbia College senior Geoff Aung point to the lack of coherence, structure, committed faculty, and upper–level seminars as some of the Programs’ most serious problems. Coherence and structure can be, to a certain extent, improved by the Directors, as they have begun in the ways described above. But they largely depend on having a wide range of pertinent courses offered consistently, which necessitates having faculty committed to teaching these courses annually, which, in turn, requires a level of funding that neither Program possesses. In the past four years, only a few of the many courses that count towards the Programs’ requirements have been taught more than once, including Historical Origins of Human Rights, Freedom of Speech and Press, and Trauma, and even fewer have been taught three or four times. The two courses offered most consistently have been Introduction to Human Rights and the Human Rights Senior Seminar. Consequently, structuring the Programs to fit one’s interests is quite difficult, even for the most resourceful students and for those who decided to study Human Rights before the spring of their sophomore year.
Despite the recent popularization of and acquisition of departmental status by other fields including American Studies, Ethnic Studies, Urban Studies, and various regional studies programs, that, like Human Rights Studies, have, since their inception, been “consciously interdisciplinary,” neither Moyn nor Martin nor Sanchez believes the Programs will gain departmental status any time soon. Nor, according to Sanchez, has either Program pushed hard for such recognition. In any case, a lack of departmental status does not rule out the possibility of receiving more funding from the University or some from CSHR. The latter option, Moyn suggests, is unlikely, because the Center runs on a very small budget as well; the former is more likely but still improbable, as the University is currently running a deficit and is, in comparison to other schools of its stature, less financially secure. What’s more, one can imagine that funding an Undergraduate Program with roughly 75 students at Columbia and 48 in the junior and senior classes at Barnard is not the highest priority for the University.
According to Moyn and Martin, then, the most feasible means for future growth is recruiting current faculty and new hires in various departments to teach Human Rights related courses. Given the interdisciplinary of Human Rights and the increasing interest among academics in the social science and humanities for studying Human Rights, this strategy may prove effective.
For obvious reasons, however, its chances for success are questionable. First, there is no guarantee that either Barnard or Columbia will hire professors who have research and teaching interests in Human Rights or, at least, could be persuaded to teach courses relevant to Human Rights. Secondly, the problem of meager resources arises once again. Neither Martin nor Moyn can be expected to act as a fundraiser, teacher, and full–time administrator simultaneously. While the Columbia Program has the assistance of three diligent part–time, student Program Assistants and a part–time graduate administrator (Sanchez), none have the administrative assistance or resources to function effectively.
All signs, therefore, point to the need for more funding from the University and other sources in the short term. In the long term, however, the Programs will hopefully lobby more earnestly for and, ultimately, receive departmental status. With departmental status would come funding for full time administrators, the ability to attract, hire, and retain more than two adjunct professors a year and, consequently, the ability to broaden offerings, options, and advising resources for students, and a space for students and affiliated faculty to gather and interact. While it seems that departmental status would seemingly provide a more sustainable future for the Programs and would impart greater flexibility for growth than receiving resources on a relatively ad hoc basis from the administrations, it is clear that to achieve the consitency, cogency, and structure necessary for attracting students and academics, the Programs urgently need more financial and human capital. While Moyn may assert that the Programs “do well with what [they] have,” at the end of the day, the Programs have next to nothing with which to “do well.”
One of President Lee C. Bollinger’s professed goals as President of Columbia is to transform it into a “truly global University.” The World Leaders Forum and the Committee on Global Thought are, as the biography on his website suggests, his crowning achievements in this respect. The former has brought “prominent international figures to the campus to engage in the [m]ajor issues of our time;” the latter aims, in part, to “generate new curriculum models that help students become better citizens of the world.”iii Globalization, terrorism, sustainable development, civil and interstate war, genocide, global justice, climate change and responses thereto are some of the issues of our time that Bollinger seeks to address via the World Leaders Forum and, incidentally, those which often greatly interest students and practitioners of Human Rights. As such, enabling students to become “better citizens of the world” requires providing them with the best possible opportunities to engage in the study of Human Rights.
Human Rights remains a concept that informs and is deeply involved in those issues about which “better citizens of the world” ought to be concerned. Addressing these problems requires thorough understanding of their complexity, of how they affect individuals, communities, societies, and humanity, and of how specific tools can be used to mitigate their negative effects and maximize their potential benefits.
Moreover, as financial institutions and trade agreements, the internet and high tech transportation, and war and disease contribute to our increasingly interconnected world, it is necessary to consider the potentially global impact of one’s behavior, to empathize with others similarly and dissimilarly situated and, further, to determine our duties as citizens of this shrinking world. Human Rights Studies, properly conceived, can properly train students to do just this.
While, to be fair, one need not study Human Rights to achieve such insight and understanding, it seems clear that a University that aims to enable its students to become “global citizens” ought to provide them with excellent opportunities for the study of Human Rights. Moreover, students desiring to pursue a course of study which is almost entirely unique to Barnard and Columbia, and which the University touts heavily, should not have to struggle to structure and become engaged in the study of Human Rights. For these Programs to achieve their potential and to serve as models for the rest of the academic world, and for this University to provide its undergraduates a valuable guide to global citizenship, the University must increase its financial and administrative support to the Human Rights Programs.
Nonetheless, students of the Programs who have benefited from and are dedicated to their success ought to voice their concerns and raise ideas for reform to faculty, administration and fellow students. We, too, as students, share responsibility in advocating for the improvement of the Programs—certainly more than we have in the past. From my discussions over the years with other students in the Programs and faculty as well, I have learned that there is significant passion for improvement of the Program; what is required from here on out is that students invest themselves more deeply in the Programs’ improvement.
Last fall, students did just that through participating in Internal and External Reviews established by the University’s Academic Review Committee, which focused primarily on the Center for the Study of Human Rights in general and, more particularly, the many programs established with its support, including the Undergraduate Human Rights Programs. These reviews were the first of their kind since the inception of the Barnard and Columbia Programs in 2000, despite the Programs’ numerous, long–standing, and evident troubles. Nonetheless, in this context, undergraduate and graduate students and faculty aired their criticisms of the Programs to University faculty and administrators as well as renowned academics involved in human rights from other institutions. At present, the Programs are awaiting a final review and conclusion from the Vice President. Given the fact that the review, though welcomed by students and faculty affiliated with the Columbia and Barnard Programs, was not focused on the status of the Undergraduate Programs, Sanchez is not optimistic that a proposal for increasing the Programs’ resources will be the ultimate result; nor is Moyn. But doing so is critical if the President Bollinger’s professed goal is to be achieved.
iI will refer to Columbia’s Program hereinafter as either the “Columbia College Program” or “Columbia’s Program,” purely because it is based almost entirely in Columbia College.
iiI would like to thank graciously those students and Professors who contributed their comments to this piece: Samuel Moyn, J. Paul Martin, Thania Sanchez, Samantha Stern, Geoff Aung, and C.J. Ponce. I would also like to thank those, who, in past conversations about the Program, provided much of the foundation and inspiration behind this article: Anubha Agarwal, Emily Setton, Gabby Barbosa, and Marbre Stahly–Butts.
ABOVE: Looking out on New York City from Columbia's Morningside Heights Campus.
JON CIOSCHI is a Columbia College Senior studying History and Human Rights. He can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hopes you will read and think hard about his article.